Tech is lead­ing race for dis­trict clerk

Har­ris County can­di­dates want more ef­fi­cient jury duty ex­pe­ri­ence

Houston Chronicle - - CITY | STATE - By Brian Rogers STAFF WRITER

The race for Har­ris County Dis­trict Clerk is the epit­ome of a down-bal­lot con­test: two can­di­dates run­ning for a min­is­te­rial of­fice with a vi­tal mis­sion that most peo­ple for­get even ex­ists.

About the only time vot­ers even re­mem­ber the of­fice is when they a get re­minder in the mail in the form of a jury sum­mons.

With that in mind, Repub­li­can in­cum­bent Chris Daniel and his Demo­cratic chal­lenger Mar­i­lyn Burgess are fo­cus­ing their cam­paigns on im­prov­ing the juror ex­pe­ri­ence, promis­ing im­proved tech­nol­ogy to make it eas­ier to sched­ule, show up and get paid for per­form­ing one’s civic duty.

Burgess calls Daniel, the 36year-old dis­trict clerk since 2010, an “ab­sen­tee man­ager,” say­ing he in­her­ited a tech­no­log­i­cal le­gacy but has done noth­ing to ad­vance it.

“Har­ris County is trail­ing in tech­nol­ogy in our state,” she said. “Other coun­ties are much bet­ter.”

The 64 -year-old cer­ti­fied pub­lic ac­coun­tant said she wants to use tech­nol­ogy to stream­line op­er­a­tions to im­prove the of­fice and save tax dollars at the same time.

First on her list, is the im­ple­men­ta­tion of elec­tronic sum­monses that would al­low prospec­tive ju­rors to pick the day of their jury ser­vice, an­swer ques­tion­naires at home and sim­ply show up at the court­room when it is time to re­port for a panel.

“We could elim­i­nate the big gen­eral as­sem­bly room which takes up two hours of your first part of your day of ser­vice,” she said. “They could show up at 10:00 a.m. in­stead of 8:00 a.m.”

She said sim­i­lar sys­tems al­ready are in place in Travis, Mont­gomery and Jef­fer­son coun­ties.

Burgess also wants to change the way ju­rors are paid the state man­dated $6 a day for the first day, how lawyers are given no­tice and how sub­poe­nas are filed.

Those in­no­va­tions al­ready are on the way, Daniel said.

“I find it amus­ing that she’s cam­paign­ing on projects that we are al­ready do­ing or al­ready pilot­ing or al­ready bid­ding out to build,” she said. “Im­i­ta­tion is flat­tery, I sup­pose.”

Daniel said an on­go­ing pro­ject to be­gin is­su­ing sum­monses elec­tron­i­cally, sim­i­lar to what Burgess is propos­ing, has been ap­proved by the ju­di­cial jury com­mit­tee, a group of judges over­see­ing new tech­nol­ogy for the county, which is the first hur­dle to get­ting a pro­gram off the ground.

“The ju­di­cial jury com­mit­tee fi­nally ap­proved us chang­ing how we han­dle ju­ries and han­dle pools so we can start do­ing on­line check-in and man­ag­ing jury pan­els,” he said. “So, they are able to go di­rectly to a court in­stead of a jury as­sem­bly build­ing.”

On Thurs­day, Daniel an­nounced the launch of elec­tronic jury ser­vice re­minders al­low­ing those sum­moned for jury ser­vice to reg­is­ter to re­ceive an email or text re­minder the day be­fore their date of ser­vice. The sys­tem also will alert ju­rors of weather or other re­lated events that could af­fect jury ser­vices.

He said the of­fice also is about to roll out a beta test for serv­ing court pa­pers by email.

“The ci­ta­tion that you would nor­mally have to come to the court­house to pick up, will now be emailed to you,” he said.

Court re­minders that have been mailed to at­tor­neys by post­card soon will be e-mailed, as well. In an­other pi­lot pro­gram, at­tor­neys are able to sched­ule hear­ings on­line.

Daniel said he also has bids out for an ATM-type ma­chine to pay ju- rors their $6 a day so the county no longer has to mail out hun­dreds of checks each day.

Both can­di­dates say they want to use tech­nol­ogy more ef­fi­ciently. That means vot­ers have to de­cide who best will carry it out for Har­ris County, which deals with al­most 20 per­cent of all court fil­ings in Texas.

The dis­trict clerk’s of­fice sees about 1.8 mil­lion court fil­ings a year, ac­cord­ing to the Texas Of­fice of Court Ad­min­is­tra­tion in Austin.

Daniel ac­knowl­edged that be­cause the of­fice is so large, it may be hard for a chal­lenger to see all the changes hap­pen­ing as im­prove­ments wind their way through the bu­reau­cracy.

“With her CPA back­ground, I fig­ured she would want to run for county trea­surer,” he said. “It’s a lot to learn, even for ex­pe­ri­enced at­tor­neys, as to what the clerk does.”

The of­fice has al­most 500 em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing at least one clerk for each of the county’s more than 80 court­rooms. Most of those em­ploy­ees work to get records on the dis­trict clerk’s web­site that al­lows Hous­to­ni­ans to see the ac­tual doc­u­ments con­nected to each case.

The sys­tem, first launched by for­mer dis­trict clerk Loren Jack­son, a Demo­crat, orig­i­nally re­quired the scan­ning of writ­ten records. Daniel has moved the of­fice to­ward com­plete elec­tronic fil­ing, mean­ing records are cre­ated on­line, trans­ferred to at­tor­neys and par­ties to sign, then filed into a cloud com­put­ing net­work.

That al­lowed the dis­trict clerk’s of­fice to re­main open in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, even as the county’s crim­i­nal jus­tice was swamped with flood­wa­ters.

Be­cause the of­fice of dis­trict clerk is not well known, is not par­tic­u­larly po­lit­i­cal and is far down the Novem­ber bal­lot, it re­mains to be seen whether ei­ther can­di­date will break through the noise of the midterms.

“There are all these of­fices that you kind of for­get about,” said Bran­don Rot­ting­haus, po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton. “The ef­fect, for all the down­bal­lot races, tends to pretty well mir­ror what hap­pens at the top of the ticket.”

While the can­di­dates may be talk­ing about se­ri­ous is­sues, get­ting the at­ten­tion of vot­ers is re­ally a chal­lenge, he said.

“You’ve got se­ri­ous is­sues, like juror di­ver­sity and ac­cess to courts, but they’re un­likely to catch fire in an elec­tion cy­cle that’s al­ready pretty spicy,” Rot­ting­haus said.

Daniel, a man who stood on a chair at the 2016 Repub­li­can Con­ven­tion to whoop and holler for na­tional tele­vi­sion cam­eras, said he is wor­ried the en­thu­si­asm that Demo­cratic Se­nate can­di­date Beto O’Rourke is stir­ring up could lead to greater straight-ticket vot­ing by Democrats.

He sup­ports abol­ish­ing straightticket vot­ing, which will be phased out in Texas af­ter Novem­ber, even as he ac­knowl­edges that it helped him push Jack­son out of of­fice in the 2010 sweep by tea party can­di­dates.

“I’m a ben­e­fi­ciary and now a vic­tim of straight-ticket vot­ing,” Daniel said. “It’s be­com­ing less and less rel­e­vant how good of a job you’re do­ing to the un­in­formed voter and more and more rel­e­vant as to whether your party is the fa­vored one.”



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